Radio Drama - Mythos by Julian Simpson

If it can be said that I ever cut any of my teeth anywhere, I cut my writing teeth in radio drama. Radio was my first passion. 

Taking possession of an old hand-held transistor radio from my parents, I listened to the Radio Plays on BBC Radio 4 from an untenably young age, investing in the Radio Times to mark up what was coming in the next week. 

When I wasn’t allowed to watch a grown up movie on television, I retired to my bed and listened to it on the VHF band of my radio instead.

Lately I’ve gone back to spec radio writing with a vengeance and I am loving the revisiting of that ‘unleashed’ feeling it gives me. I think my radio writing has coloured every other kind of writing I’ve done since. Certainly in the theatre work I find I have an ingrained aversion to the use of any kind of complex set, preferring instead a couple of stools or a single chair. In radio, as with books, the audience/readership brings its own sets, its own costumes, its own lighting. It’s quite different from cinema or television where the entire meal is spoon fed to you. In radio, theatre and books, you have to do some of the cooking yourself and the experience can often be all the richer for it.

In the midst of this renewed radio obsession, I was delighted to see Julian Simpson roll up with the second and third episode of his new ‘Mythos’ series on BBC Radio 4 this week. Tuesday started off with a rerun of the first episode then Wednesday and Thursday brought the new stories. If you want to hear it, I believe it stays on the BBC iPlayer for another twenty days or so. Here in Ireland, we don’t get the TV version of iPlayer but the Radio stuff works just fine so it is possible that these plays can be listened to all over the world. Here’s a link to the page. I can’t guarantee it will work for you, dear resident of Western Samoa, but it’s worth a shot. 

Julian Simpson is a writer I admire. He’s been kind enough to chat to me on the ‘Social Media’s for the last ten years or so and perhaps that’s given me a front row seat to his work. Still, though, I can’t help but feel if there was no connection, I would still be envious of the ambition, wit and intelligence he brings to all of his work. Even if you don’t know his name (you probably do) you will probably have absorbed his work when remarking that a particular week’s episode of Spooks or Old Tricks was  exceptionally clever. That will most likely have been him. One also senses that even greater plans are currently being hatched among the unsuspecting denizens of North London so watch that space.

Mythos is great fun and one senses that JS had great fun writing it. The rough conceit is one of a team of Government-affiliated guardians who try to hold a line between the world we all know and an endless stream of alternate worlds which are shaped and coloured by our collective mythology and folklore. That’s a mouthful but basically it’s a conceit that allows some contemporary, slightly world weary, characters to come up against the great and good of our beloved monsters and heroes of yore. 

It’s hard not to think of how Douglas Adams reached out to the stars and made such fun out of them. JS reaches in to our folklore and does the same.

For me, though, the series successfully evokes the original ‘Avengers’ series much more than ‘Hitchhikers’. And, no, I don’t mean Iron Man and The Hulk et all. I'm talking about the John Steed/Emma Peel version which I grew up with. Tim McInnerny’s ‘Johnson’ character has, for me at least, some of the Steed DNA in him. Tim does a super job in these plays as, of course, does Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox. It’s a truly great cast which includes Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s Jana Carpenter who plays Libby in the second episode and who I like for all kinds of reasons, none of which need concern the writer/director.

JS is a damn clever fellow and although he wears that lightly on his sleeve he can’t help but showing it in his writing. As a result there is one hell of a lot of stuff going on here. At face value, it’s a ‘steampunkish’ romp through time and fable but scratch the surface and there is perhaps some deeper political punches being landed too. 

One of the things Julian deliberately does is to draw back the veil of the narrative structure to show us, the audience, some of the workings beneath. I wonder if this is almost a sub-conscious effort to show us how he understands, all too well, the limitations of the narrative structure he is working within or whether it’s an entirely conscious wink to the audience saying, ‘this is just a bit of a lark, let’s get on with it’. Whatever the reason, I found it a tiny bit jarring. Audiences have an ingrained knowledge of their stories and, deep in their, hearts, they know how these stories must unfold. To open those stories up, mid tale, is a little like a magician showing how a trick is done or some exotic dancer (male or female, take your pick) peeling back their skin to flash the glistening muscle and tendon that lies beneath. I realise this is the writer’s intent and that this ‘desire for story’ lies at the very heart of the concept. I just think that when this conceit is extended into the actual story being told, that may be even a little too ‘meta’ for me. 

The very nature of these plays brings challenges, particular in Radio, and nobody sees this clearer than JS. There is an immense amount of business to be done in the forty-four minute running time. As a result, the drama unfolds rather breathlessly. Super-smart lines which might have benefited from a split second pause and an invisible, virtual, nod to camera, can not be permitted this luxury. The narrative simply must barrel along. One could see this format convert well to TV, where an extra fifteen minutes on the run time would give JS enough room to add an additional beat or two or even a ‘middle eight’ pause before barrelling on again. It is clear that there just wasn’t enough space in the timeframe to do all that. Despite that, the often-frenetic pace at which proceedings unfold is really very charming and it would be a shame to lose it completely.

Another great challenge of the concept is the large amount of exposition which must be imparted in each episode. Parts 2 and 3 were somewhat liberated, in this regard, as the world had been well-established in Part 1. Still, though, there is lots that has to be told and the characters take turns at telling it. In doing so, JS employs a knowing, almost-apologetic, tone which seems to say, ‘here we go again with the exposition, we know it’s a bit of a pain but it has to be done’. Much fun is had with this ploy although the fact that a number of characters employ it does sometimes lead to a touch of ‘tone-borrowing’ where the characters occasionally start to sound a bit alike.

For me, the biggest challenge in carrying off future episodes of ‘Mythos’ lies in the questions of Risk and Consequences. A great universe has been firmly established where almost anything can, and probably will, happen. However, there also appears to be infinite opportunities for escape and ‘do-overs’ within the rules of this new universe. The dead might be dead but not really all that gone. A universe can be destroyed but, wait, there’ll be another one along in a minute. Something I struggle with, in my own attempts at drama, is the ‘All is Lost’ moment where there really seems to be no way back (although somewhere/somehow there always is). With the three Mythos plays, due to a combination of an infinite number of options and the very pace of the action, there is always the feeling that everything will be all right and that it will be all right quite soon now. Knowing JS’s work, I know that if he had a little more time to work with, a greater sense of risk and consequences would quickly be instilled in the drama. 

I recommend you have a listen to the first of the plays via the iPlayer and see if you are engaged and entertained as I certainly was. As I said earlier, JS is a smart, smart fellow with a lot more to say and do. I feel that, in listening to these plays, you may find yourself on the fourth or fifth floor of an elevator that is very soon and very rapidly going all the way to the top.

Small Beige Umbrella

I don’t know if you know but I carry an umbrella almost everywhere I go. It’s not an affectation or anything. I just don’t like getting rained on. 

Although I’m not superstitious, I’ve almost come to believe that it is more likely to rain if I do not have my umbrella with me. It is almost, but not quite, evidence of a humorous God above. That he/she would look down, see me venture out without my umbrella, and entice the heavens to open and piss it down upon my head.

I say this to people who ask me why I am toting an umbrella on a patently fine day. A number of people use this as a conversational ploy whenever we meet. “Got the old umbrella? Keeping the rain away?” They smile gently and speak to me like I am four years old, which sometimes seems about right.

My umbrella ‘weapon of choice’ is one of those little black numbers that shoot open when you press the button on the handle. It fits neatly in the front section of my shoulder bag and comes to hand easily when the rains recommence. I go through them though. They are cheap and never last very long. Generally it is a gust of high wind that does for them, turning them inside-out, ripping the fabric and twisting the frame.

Of late, though, the simple old pop-out black number has been hard to find. Perhaps it’s been the wetness of the winter, perhaps some factory in China has had a setback. I don’t know the reason. All I know is, for a time there, I have gone about my business umbrella-less. 

And, oh, how the Gods have laughed and made merry. Sheets of rain, vertical and horizontal in turn have assailed me as I go on my way. The country has suffered flooding, the farmers have not enough feed. All because of my lack of an umbrella.

Okay, not really… but I did get wet.

One particularly torrential lunchtime,  a few months ago, I was in my spiritual home, The Linenhall, getting a sandwich. In a cloud burst of inspiration, I asked them if they had any abandoned umbrellas behind the counter and, if so, could I borrow one to get me home? They had quite a few abandoned/lost umbrellas and told me to take my pick and keep it but most of them were too flowery even for me. Only one seemed even slightly passable. A small pop-up one like the kind I normally favour… except it was beige. It was ‘Mum Beige’. You know the colour. Mums have umbrellas that colour. I weighed my options and went with the umbrella. A little reluctantly. It wasn’t me but it was shelter from the storm. I took it and went home and it kept me mostly dry all the way.

I’ll keep it, I thought, just for a couple of days until I can get a nice new black one all of my own.

It’s been months, months and months, and I’m still toting my small beige umbrella. Mostly I keep it in my bag, like I do with the black ones, but at lunchtime I walk home without my bag so there I am, rocking my small beige umbrella, just like my Mum and countless other Mums used to do. 

The umbrella is now completely ruined. The little beige handle at the end kept falling off and I kept screwing it back on until it cracked and refused to stay in place. The retractable shaft no longer fully retracts so the unhandled sharp end sticks out far too far. It looks like I am carrying a menacing sort of a weapon. A beige weapon. 

I am a professional person of almost fifty five years of age. I am self employed and do a rather serious and responsible job which carries quite a bit of weight and responsibility. My peers are spinning around town in large cars and wearing nice suits. I, meanwhile, am struggling up the main street, bedraggled in my all weather coat beneath a tattered beige umbrella. 

What on earth am I like?

There are a couple of truths attached to this.

The first truth is a) I don’t care. I don’t care much what I look like or what kind of image I project. So long as my flies ain’t undone and my shoes are on the appropriate feet, I kind of feel I’m doing okay. My best attributes are definitely not how I look. I’m kind of funny and fairly sharp. I’ll help you out if I can. These are the kind of things that matter to me. Not how beige my umbrella is.

The second truth is b) I like to hold on to things. I find it hard, bordering on impossible, to let go of things that people have given me. The tattered beige umbrella is a case in point. If I’d bought it, I would have thrown it away by now. But somebody gave it me. It makes it more valuable on some stupid subliminal level that I can’t even understand myself, much less explain it. 

I think that second truth holds a key to one of my failings. This way I tend to hold on to things that I have been given. My firm embrace of the Status Quo. Almost all of the more radical changes in my life have been brought about due to external influences. My turns have been necessary reactions to things that have happened. Rarely, if ever, have I thrown down something and picked up something better, while the first something is still clacking along in some half-assed way.

Reading back, that last part has a whiff of dissatisfaction about it but that is totally not the case. I am quite satisfied and happy with my lot. Indeed, I know I am a very, very lucky guy. But it’s good to think about silly things now and again. It’s good to try to reach. 

It’s only on those occasions when you make that conscious effort to step out from under the beige umbrella and look up into the sky… 

It’s only then that you wonder if you should have thrown the tatty thing in the nearest bin and just allowed yourself to get more wet a little more often. 

The Bravery of Liking Things

This week is just about some things I like.

Here’s two things I think about liking things. I’ve put an a) and a b) on them so you can tell them apart. I’m nothing if not helpful.

a) You have to be a bit brave to admit to liking things. It’s like sticking your head above the battlements so that someone can catapult a cow at you. In ‘The Colour of Money’ Paul Newman kept using a peculiar expression. “I’ve shown you my ass,” he used to say. Admitting to liking something is a bit like that. You show people your ass. It’s there, all laid out, to be kicked if so desired. “You liked that? What kind of an idiot, gobshite, half-wit, could like that?” The converse is also true, it requires no bravery at all to say how you don’t like something, though sometimes it has to be done.

b) People seem to get worried or even a bit agitated when somebody doesn’t like a thing that they themselves like. I’ve never really understood this or at least, as Sting used to say, I don’t subscribe to this point of view. Being somewhat perverse in my outlook, I absolutely love it when people don’t like what I like. It’s like a great compliment, a testament to my individuality and quirky taste. A reaffirmation that we are all individuals who all like and love our own things in our own way. We are diverse and windswept and interesting so, you know… yay.

I’ve liked lots of things, recently. I’m a ‘liker’ really. I tend to like things. 

The things that I mention here have a least two things in common. No, I won’t do the 'a) and b)' thing again, I think we’re good. 

Firstly (!) I really, really, liked these things and, secondly, I don’t thing everybody will like them the way I do. Am I being deliberately provocative? No! Fuck you! (That last bit was me being deliberately provocative, just so you know what it looks like.)


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

I really, really like this book, which is great fun ‘cos lots of people don’t. I bought it for Patricia at Christmas (Yes, a brand new copy. Yes, she’s worth it). I then sneakily read the first few pages. “Oh, no,” I said to myself, “I can’t be  doing with this,” and I tossed it aside but onto a bed so that it wouldn’t get damaged. The word-of-mouth I was hearing all seemed to support my decision. It was only when I heard a trusted friend was raving about it, some months later (like, now) that I picked it up and looked again. It’s written in an odd format, with many real and not-so real characters providing short testaments which make up the story. Every line reads like the opening of a chapter. But it works. It’s alienating at first but, once you get into the cadence of it, you’re good. And what a sad, warm, cold, story unfolds. And what marvellous flights of fancy and outlandish characters take us there. 

It’s a book I would recommend to people, if only for the joy of having them throw it back at me. 

The Florida Project.

I really, really like this film. I don’t want to say too much about it because I saw it without knowing too much about it and I feel that contributed to my liking it as much as I did. Actually, thinking about it now, I think I’ll say nothing about the story at all. I think it should have featured more prominently in the recent awards season, it’s that good. Like ‘Lincoln’ it starts off in such an odd fashion that you may be inclined to give up. At first, it seems, to coin one of my Dad’s expressions, to be ‘about nothing’. Also the sound is slightly odd, such that you may struggle to hear what is being said. But it ropes you in. It just ropes you in and you become invested and involved in what is unfolding. Real cinema, beautiful to look at. A real world, terrible to behold. Give this a go. I predict you will like it, just like I did. 

Hamlet (on telly)

Yes, that Hamlet. Well, the version that was on the telly last weekend. Last year’s Almeida Theatre production which moved to the Harold Pinter and was filmed there. I watched this in several goes over the Easter Weekend. I did Hamlet for my Leaving Cert exam and was able to say a couple of the key speeches along with it (which was fun). What I really like about it was Andrew Scott and how he spoke the lines clearly and with some clear empathy for what he was saying and doing. It was almost as if he took his character’s advice to “Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue.” Although, funnily enough, he also seemed to pass on another piece of advice from the same speech as he did sometimes, “Saw the air” a little bit. 

I think I decided to mention ‘Hamlet’ here, not because I wanted to impress you with the odd ways I tend to spend my Saturday nights but rather because it provides a good working example of people not liking stuff. I saw lots of profound criticism on my Social Media while Hamlet was unfolding on the telly. This is obviously well-and-good. It’s just that some of it seemed designed to show how fabulously erudite the critic was, rather than making any attempt at constructive reaction. Maybe it’s just me but if you are saying things like “some of it was good but here’s why it wasn’t good…” perhaps you could save a little space for the bits you thought were good as well as all the bad stuff. I think there is a real fear that we show ourselves up by liking things and I wish we could change a little in that respect. 

Cabaret (The Donmar Warehouse Revival)

I watched this on Youtube. It’s there in 16 parts, a TV version of the musical. I saw this on ITV late one night, years and years ago, when I landed on it by accident. I thought it was amazing and nobody else had seen it. It was like I dreamt it. Then I found it on YouTube and,  guess what, I didn’t dream it after all. It’s not a prefect recording and there’s songs missing in the edit but Alan Cumming is naughtiness and pathos personified and Jane Horrocks literally makes arm hairs rise with her sinewy delivery of the title song. Here’s a link, in case you fancy it. Maybe it’s a bit niche (slight pun intended) but I really, really like it. 

That’s it for now. I could do more but I must get to Tesco. 

I suppose what I’m trying to say is, tell me the stuff you like. Mostly so I can consider giving it a go myself. If I value your opinion (and I do) and you really, really like something, then I might like to try it. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even hate it.

Then we’ll have something good to talk about. 

Drama Season

Drama Season is over now, for another year. 

It’s time to stop and breathe.

It seems an arrogance to even suggest that there is a ‘Drama Season’. A presumption of something that one shouldn’t presume. Certainly, there is no guarantee that Drama Season will ever come again. It is not like Easter, its annual arrival is not inevitable. But the last number of years have followed a pattern for me and, lucky as I know I am, the months between Christmas and Easter have been my Drama Season.

And it is over now. Time to look back. 

This was the sixth year of The Claremorris Fringe Festival, the sixth year I entered, the sixth year I got in. Upon hearing they would have me and my anonymously-submitted script again this year, I did what I always do. I quietly delivered the script of ‘I Bet You Say That to All the Boys’ to my three partners-in-crime in Drama and then ran away before they saw me. Donna Ruane, Tara Niland, Eamon Smith and myself. For all of the six years, these three actors have formed the cohort that brought the plays to stage. We have had one first and two second places over those years and this year's was one of the seconds. The guys were brilliant and gave a great performance, Tara and Eamon picking up a well-deserved acting nod along the way.

This little play was a bit unusual for me in that I felt I was at least trying to react in some way to the world I find myself living in rather than simply playing within it. The husband in the play literally speak for his wife, telling her how to feel and what to say. In these days when women seem more visibly oppressed than ever and also seem to rail more actively against this wrong, I felt I should look to my own game. I’ve been trying to do that this year, as my own tiny and personal response to the ills I see. Am I without sin? Can I throw the stone? No, I certainly can not. Being almost fifty five years old, I have grown up in a world where prejudice has subtly flavoured everything. It was, to my mind, almost more of a na├»ve prejudice than a malicious one. We stared at the very few black people who crossed our paths, we cheered as Benny Hill ogled another band of women and couldn’t wait until next Tuesday, when he would do it all again. Such things leave a hue on our souls that is hard to wash away. For my own part, when I stop and look hard at myself, I can see things I do that are not as good as they could be, things that are embedded in me. I can’t change the world but I can change myself. The play was at least trying to acknowledge a little of that. 

The Claremorris audiences are marvellous things. They go in and see a  full length play and then they come through into the Fringe space and watch two more. I hope the Fringe continues to go from strength to strength. As a writer, it gives me a bar to try to pull my chin above. It builds my confidence and skill. It encourages me to create something new. 

I may never be a part of Claremorris Fringe again but it has been a part of me and, for that, I am grateful. 

Then came the Teenage Play. 

I didn’t think I had a teenage play for this year. Donna and I were reading scripts and throwing out ideas from other writers. I was deep into other writing and didn’t think I had the energy to produce something that (literally) fit the bill. 

Then, over Christmas, I did some thinking. I thought about the last two productions of my plays, over the last two years, ‘Midnight in the Theatre of Blood’ and last year’s ‘Deb’s Night’ and I knew I would be missing out if I couldn’t get to do it all again this year. And so, ‘The Colour of Red’ was born. Derived from a radio play I wrote for St Patrick’s Drama Group in Westport about fifteen years ago, called ‘A Place in Between’. The play went on to be shortlisted for the PJ O’Connor Award and then lay dormant as radio plays can do. Another radio play of mine ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Bert’ had been revived as a theatre play by Oisin Heraghty and toured the national one act festivals. Since then it has found a life of its own with theatre groups in various parts of the West of Ireland. Why could ‘A Place in Between’ not do the same?

A ‘significant rewrite’ was done to make the material more suited to the young cast of Donna’s brilliant ‘Acting for Fun’ group. Then, like the Claremorris play, it was dropped in a letterbox and the poster scurried away to await the verdict.

The verdict (never predictable) was positive and ‘The Colour of Red’ became a real life thing all in its own right. 

And, this week, it went on, in two marvellous performances at The Linenhall Theatre in Castlebar. Two real and unequivocal nights of theatre, coloured in and textured by the production work of Oisin Heraghty, who calmly and unflappably ran each show while I flapped about enough for both of us. 

Two wonderful nights. The culmination of months of hard work and preparation. Thanks to Orla and Maura and everyone at The Linenhall Arts Centre who give us their splendid theatrical facility and who allow us to play with it.

I am so proud of the cast. They were brilliant without exception and they continued a tradition of excellence in acting derived from Donna Ruane’s mentoring and care. 

I was delighted, also, to see my own son, Sam, step into his third production of one of my plays and do us both very proud in the process. 

These productions, from rehearsal to execution, are tailor-made golden memories for me. Often, we can’t tell what will become a treasured moment in our lives until years after the event but these times, particularly the performance days, are heightened fulfilling experiences that I know will warm my heart for as long as memory stays. 

Too much, Ken? 

Nah. Not nearly enough. 

And now the stage is bare and the blank page faces me once more. 

Oddly enough, for all the productions and acting and performances, this is the moment where I finally realise that I may be a writer.

Because the blank page holds no fear for me.

There, deep in its cell structure, lies a world of endless possibilities. A land where anything can happen and probably will. 

Earlier this week, when the plays were done, I scribbled a note to myself and laid it face down on my desk.

An arrogant mission statement of what I propose to do next. It may not work. It may not even be possible. But I am emboldened now by Drama Season and I’m going to give it my best shot.

So let’s get to it.